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Former Africa Centre executive director wins lawsuit over dismissal

Tesfaye Ayalew, the co-founder and former executive director of the Africa Centre, was awarded additional severence following a lawsuit against his former employer. (Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations - image credit)
Tesfaye Ayalew, the co-founder and former executive director of the Africa Centre, was awarded additional severence following a lawsuit against his former employer. (Edmonton Chamber of Voluntary Organizations - image credit)

The co-founder and former executive director of the Africa Centre has been awarded additional severance after winning a lawsuit against his former employer.

In a decision filed on Feb. 27, Court of King's Bench Justice Michael Lema found Tesfaye Ayalew was entitled to 14 months of severance.

In 2018, Ayalew was fired "without cause" amidst allegations of abuse and sexual harassment involving a former employee. He denied the allegations.

Later that year, Ayalew filed a wrongful dismissal lawsuit against The Council for the Advancement of African Canadians in Alberta (CAAC), which operates the Africa Centre. The centre offers family and educational support to the city's African community.

Lema ruled that Ayalew's age — he was 62 when he dismissed — his length of service, his leadership role and the limited other job opportunities, entitled him to additional reasonable-notice pay.

The Africa Centre was granted credit for the eight weeks of severance it paid to Ayalew in 2018.

Lema declined to award Ayalew any aggravated damages on top of the extended severance.

During the trial last month, Ayalew testified that he'd suffered reputational damage as a result of media coverage of the allegations that he had mistreated Africa Centre employees.

He said he'd been unable to find other employment in the non-profit sector, and so had decided to work as a taxi driver.

"That's how I was destroyed ... everything I built for 25 years was shattered in one blow [in part by] them throwing my name out there.  How [could] I get a [new] job?" he told court.

Ayalew was placed on paid administrative leave in January 2018, following allegations of abuse and sexual harassment.

According to Lema's decision, in 2017 the Africa Centre's accountant resigned, making various allegations about being mistreated by Ayalew.

Ayalew was suspended in January 2018, and the CAAC board of directors hired an employment lawyer to investigate that person and two other employees' allegations against Ayalew which had also surfaced.

According to the decision, the board decided to terminate Ayalew "without cause" because the independent investigator found that Ayalew had not bullied, harassed, sexually harassed or otherwise mistreated employees.

In addition to the required minimum of eight weeks of severance, Ayalew was offered another month of severance if he agreed to sign an agreement releasing the board from all claims related to the dismissal.

Ayalew received the base severance, but declined to sign the release and filed the civil suit

With or without cause

During trial, the CAAC argued said that it subsequently received additional allegations against Ayalew that contradicted the report and that could have warranted a "with cause" dismissal

The CAAC argued that because they had "mistakenly" dismissed Ayalew without cause, they shouldn't have paid him severance. Instead, they argued, he should have to pay back the severance he received.

Lema found that the CAAC's explanation did not bear out.

"Armed with all the material allegations against Mr. Ayalew, the [board] decided, on its own, to dismiss him without cause," Lema said.

Lema also found problems with the board's argument that it had received new information that contradicts the investigator's findings.

"No evidence supports the (CAAC)'s position that, post-termination, it came into new information bearing Mr. Ayalew's conduct or in any case bearing on possible just cause for his dismissal," the judge wrote.

"Instead, all the alleged misconduct by Mr. Ayalew testified to by the three complaining individuals — i.e. everything put forward to establish just cause — was known to the board at the time of dismissal."

At the time of his dismissal, Ayalew's yearly salary was $83,130.